As central San Joaquin Valley farmers and ranchers know, agriculture is rarely an easy business. There’s the up and down of commodity prices. Land subsidence. Water, of course. Add politics and it gets downright messy.
Now comes the 2016 presidential campaign.
Many in the Valley’s agriculture community are watching with a growing level of concern, as they feel increasingly backed into a corner by policy stances among the leading contenders that are anti-trade and anti-immigration. Other important issues such as water don’t even appear to be on the candidates’ radar.
There even is talk among some in the industry of supporting Hillary Clinton, even though many consider the Democratic front-runner to be a deeply flawed candidate.
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“We’re not in good shape,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, an Exeter-based growers lobby.
The four leading presidential candidates – Democrats Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Republicans Donald Trump and Ted Cruz – all oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade-and-investment agreement between 12 Pacific Rim countries that was signed in February but still awaits congressional approval.
In addition, Cruz, the Texas senator, and Trump, the billionaire businessman from New York, have made anti-immigration policies central campaign themes.
Trump most famously boasts that he will build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and make Mexico foot the bill. He said Mexican immigrants coming into the U.S. were “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Cruz, however, also wants to build a wall – “that works” – as well as saying he will end “illegal amnesty.”
I am totally despondent over the entire race.
Nat DiBuduo, president of the Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers
Such talk goes to the heart of the workforce that agriculture depends on to plant and harvest its crops.
“I am totally despondent over the entire race,” said Nat DiBuduo, president of the Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers. “I’m not at a point that I could say I would support Hillary. I’m still too hard-core Republican to ever get to that point, but I am totally disenchanted with the Republican alternatives.”
The situation has some in the industry, such as DiBuduo and Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Fresh Fruit Association, praying for a John Kasich miracle. The Republican Ohio governor favors the Trans Pacific Partnership and has a far more moderate stance on immigration than either Cruz or Trump.
Hoping against hope
“John is the only adult in the room at times, it seems,” Bedwell said.
But for now Kasich is at best a long shot. He has 144 delegates, far behind Trump’s 755 and Cruz’s 545. A candidate needs 1,237 to earn the Republican presidential nomination.
Kasich and his supporters realize he never will reach the required number of delegates, but he is staying in the race, betting on a brokered GOP convention this summer in Cleveland. In that scenario, no Republican goes into the convention with the required number of delegates, and Kasich emerges as the preferred alternative.
Some polls have suggested he is the only Republican who could beat Clinton in a one-on-one November matchup, though it is still early in the campaign.
“As we’re looking at this, we’re hoping against hope that John Kasich can find a path here,” Bedwell said.
They’re all just running. They don’t know or care what is best for the ag industry.
Nat DiBuduo, president of the Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers
Absent Kasich, it leaves the Republican Party with a high likelihood of nominating Cruz or Trump. As flawed as Clinton is, Bedwell said, she may be the best-qualified candidate if Kasich cannot gain the Republican nomination. Sanders is widely dismissed by Valley agriculture.
Clinton favors comprehensive immigration reform, and because of that she holds some appeal to the agriculture industry, whose leaders hope she can be educated on water and other issues, and maybe come around on the Trans Pacific Partnership.
It feels strange for Valley agriculture, which largely has rallied around Republicans in recent decades. (There are those, however, who say that President Bill Clinton was more helpful to the industry than either George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush.) But given the strident tones on trade and immigration from both Trump and Cruz, backing a Republican for president might be difficult if either is the nominee.
Nisei Farmers League President Manuel Cunha is angry about it.
Like many in the industry, Cunha worries a lot about water, and wonders why it doesn’t seem to be on any presidential candidate’s radar. He wonders how they will approach key issues such as the Farm Bill. He frets about trade.
But he can’t get away from immigration and says it really makes him feel like a one-issue person.
This weekend, he is in Washington, D.C., preparing for Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court hearing on executive actions on immigration taken by President Barack Obama.
The Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals were challenged by more than half the states, mostly led by Republican governors. The nation’s highest court will hear arguments on Obama’s actions and Cunha is on the president’s side.
If the Supreme Court sides with the states, Cunha said it could devastate west-side Valley communities such as Mendota.
Looking ahead, he fears Cruz winning the presidency with his strong anti-immigration views. He knows Trump has threatened to build a wall, but hopes that he might regain his business sense on the issue and reconsider the effect his immigration stance would have not just on the nation’s agriculture sector, but others that depend on low-cost foreign labor. Cunha says his rational side tells him it’s a dire situation.
Backed into a corner
“We’re backed in a corner, no doubt,” Cunha said. “But between Hillary or Ted Cruz, I have to work with Hillary. I’m not saying I support Hillary, but what choice would I have at the end of the day? I have no choice. Why would I work with a person who is anti-immigrant?”
Others in the industry are simply waiting.
West Valley farmer Dan Errotabere wants to see how the presidential process shakes out before he makes a decision on backing a candidate. He expects the candidates’ talking points to move toward the political center as they try to broaden their appeal in a general election. At least he hopes that will happen.
“I just think they’re playing to their base,” he said.
Errotabere, who along with his brothers farms almonds, pistachios and wine grapes, acknowledges the important issues at play such as immigration and trade. As the election season moves toward California’s June 7 primary, he hopes the candidates also will start to address water.
California Citrus Mutual’s Nelsen agrees.
“We have continued challenges on water from regulators,” he said. “Fish keep winning.”
But like Errotabere, he is waiting and watching at the presidential level.
There have been conversations with the Kasich camp, but Kasich has yet to show he is viable, Nelsen said, and “you can’t ask us to throw money down what appears to be a rat hole.”
As we’re looking at this, we’re hoping against hope that John Kasich can find a path here.
Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Fresh Fruit Association
Nelsen says education is the key. Presidents Ronald Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes knew about agriculture. Candidates this year, for the most part, don’t.
“The only thing Donald Trump knows about agriculture is what’s served in his hotels,” Nelsen said. “The only thing Ted Cruz knows about agriculture is that it’s practiced some in Texas.”
The Allied Grape Growers’ DiBuduo agrees. He’s not sure Clinton, Cruz or Trump know or even care about the Valley’s water issues.
“Their responses would be in sound bites,” he said. “They’re all just running. They don’t know or care what is best for the ag industry.”
Still, Nelsen said, the agriculture industry needs to try to get the candidates’ collective ear so they aren’t just hearing from their most strident supporters – either the tea party for the Republicans or environmental activists for the Democrats.
“We’ve just got a job to do,” Nelsen said. “It’s a steep hill.”